In the spring of 2016 I was on a night flight out of Seattle. My travelling companions were two-year old Poppy and her mother. Poppy’s grandfather had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and they were flying to North Carolina to be with him. Poppy told me long stories in a language I didn’t understand, in a tone that was both passionate and thoughtful. As we flew over the lights of the city, she pressed her nose to the window and said ‘Wow, Wow ….’ over and over again.
Poppy found the long flight difficult and she cried a lot. Her mother rocked and soothed her and apologised to me for the disturbance. She carried her little girl up and down the aisle but nothing could stop the crying. The mother was clearly challenged and utterly helpless in the face of her daughter’s distress. I sat with my eyes closed, managing my own feelings of empathy and physical discomfort. In a quiet moment, I felt a gentle kiss on my arm as Poppy offered me a small apology of her own.
In order to become a parent, you don’t need to be wealthy or a particular height or skilled in any way. There are no degree programmes, no pass or fail. As parents all we really have available to us are internships, the ones we received in childhood as we watched our own parents be parents. There are 7 billion people on the planet and only two of them are our biological parents. It is a unique and never to be repeated relationship. We talk about the places we used to live, the organisations we worked for, the people we were married to, but we never talk about our ‘ex mothers’ or our ‘former fathers’. The attitude and the behaviour may be there, but there is no language for it in any culture. Our parents may not be what we longed for, but they are what we have been given and there is nothing we can do to change that. We can deny it, we can wish it away but we can’t stop it being true.
When we got off the plane in Charlotte, Poppy was fast asleep in her mother’s arms and, as we re-claimed our bags at the carousel, the little girl’s mother apologized to me one last time. I told her how much I had enjoyed meeting them both and how fortunate they were to be related to one another.